Complexity of Protections and Barriers in the Implementation of the Human Right to Water in the United States

Article excerpt

I am grateful to have the opportunity to share with you recent developments in law with regard to the human rights to water and sanitation in the United States. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is a nonsectarian human rights and social justice organization related to the liberal religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism--advocating for human rights since the 1940s when the organization rescued children from Nazi repression in Europe. Faith-based institutions and service organizations are familiar with assisting families and individuals in difficulty. However, a disturbing problem has begun to introduce itself into the pastoral care of major faith institutions: families impacted by lack of access to safe drinking water in the United States.

To illustrate the complexities of implementing a human right to water in the United States, and the gaps in protections, I will share an anecdotal experience. In one of our congregations a few years ago, we held a public lecture on the human right to water. After the event, a woman approached and told me that her well had failed because, she believed, the water table dropped from nearby (recently permitted) agricultural pumping. She had made arrangements with a neighbor for bathing, cooking, dishes and clothes washing, and drinking water for her and her three children. She explained that she had exhausted all of her options--she looked into digging a deeper well and purchasing a more powerful pump, which would cost thousands of dollars, and she was not eligible for financing. She approached the county to extend water services to her home; connections per household were $10,000 and twenty of her neighbors would also have to join the extension scheme. Litigating the damages through the legal system was not an option without the ability to pay for legal fees with the high costs of evidence to prove causality (the water lawyers on the panel can affirm the complexity of litigating water rights). Child Protective Services had learned of the situation and removed her children from her home, placing them in custodial care where the water bills are subsidized. She asked me, "Can the human right to water help me?" In the United States, the implications for water shutoffs go far beyond the extreme difficulty of losing access to water, to sanitation--it can mean that parents lose their children, that people are put out of their homes, or that their homes are foreclosed for unpaid water bills.

As duty bearers and rights holders, parents have an obligation to provide for the welfare of their children. In rural areas, where residents and small communities rely on groundwater and household wells--and where environmental and hydrologic water resources and their management are out of their control--impacts on rural communities of decisions by government and private actors are especially difficult to predict, manage, and legislate. Where society gives preferential treatment to the highest and best use of water, and permits agricultural, industrial, mining and other extractive uses, we ultimately pass the burden of our economic priorities on to the individual. In many cases, these are the individuals who are least able to bear that burden. This is where human rights can assist in sorting through our fiscal and environmental priorities. Our churches, synagogues, temples, meeting houses, and mosques are also bearing the burden of decisions by public and private actors in the water and sanitation sector. In one of the early warning systems in our society--our faith institutions--alarm bells are ringing.

The United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Dr. Catarina de Albuquerque, reported her findings on the human right to water and sanitation in the United States to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2011. (1) She found that while the United States has made significant progress in ensuring access to safe, sufficient, affordable water and sanitation, there is evidence of serious problems with access for vulnerable populations. …